In the past few years, on these pages of The Jewish Press, I have written several times about critical strategic implications of “chaos” and also of “irrationality” and “madness.” Still, I have never written about the fusion or juxtaposition of these seemingly distinct issues. However, because there are increasingly obvious and important potential interactions between them (military strategists would call such interactions “synergies,” or sometimes “force-multipliers”), I shall now examine these utterly core security matters with a view toward acknowledging their possible ways of coming together.
In particular, the results could be very important to a better understanding of what is now happening between Israel and Iran. This will be, therefore, a helpful and consciously purposeful look behind the current news.
In defense planning there exist critically important differences between rationality, irrationality, and madness. An irrational leadership may not value national survival more highly than anything else, but it may still have a consistent and therefore predictable hierarchy of preferences. For example, it may always value certain presumed religious obligations more than any other preference, or combination of preferences. This unsettling prospect, as we all already know, is a distinct possibility in present-day Iran.
A rational leadership elite, on the other hand, in the usual parlance of security studies, will always value national survival more highly than all other preferences, and it will always respect this same rank order in its hierarchy of preferences. Significantly, just as with an irrational national leadership, this set of rational decision-makers will also have a consistent hierarchy.
Madness is a different condition altogether; in world politics it means not having any established rank-ordering of preferences. Hence, a mad national leadership, with no consistent ordering of preferred choices, will be more-or-less wholly unpredictable. For Israel and the United States, having to face a mad adversary must always represent the very worst case scenario. But, at least for now, perhaps somewhat reassuringly, it is the most improbable case.
Enter Israel and Iran. According to recent statements by former Mossad Chief Meir Dagan, “The regime in Iran is a very rational one.” However, considering Dagan’s corollary explanations of “rationality,” he is saying only that the Iranian regime is not mad; that it will prudently consider all decisional consequences. Dagan’s notion of Iranian rationality may actually resemble our above-referenced meaning of irrationality – that this regime carefully weighs all expected costs and benefits, and that its preferences will always fall within a consistent hierarchy, or rank-ordering. The bottom line is this: Dagan’s statements notwithstanding, the current Iranian leadership cannot be reliably counted upon to value national survival above all else. Yes, its authority patterns may be entirely reasonable, well-ordered, and even predictable (certainly not “mad”), but there still can be no adequate assurances of ultimate and certain decisional priority for national self-preservation.
It follows from all this that successful “containment” or deterrence of an already-nuclear Iranian regime should not be taken for granted. The resulting balance-of-terror might still not closely replicate the circumstances of mutual assured destruction (MAD) that had once existed between the Soviet Union and the United States. This might not be your father’s Cold War.
This brings us, quite naturally, to chaos.
Chaotic disintegration is an evident fact of life in several parts of the world. Today, substantial and even sudden extensions of this condition to other sectors of our planet are plausible. Even with assorted arms control and disarmament visions, including President Obama’s continuing fantasy of “a world free of nuclear weapons,” it is credible to expect, somewhere, an eventual fusion of mass destruction weapons with irrationality and/or madness. Our current fears, of course, center on Iran, Syria, Pakistan and North Korea, but there are certainly other, as yet unforeseen, areas of peril.
From Israel’s particular standpoint, the dangers may be starkly unique. Confronting not only a growing threat from existing enemy states but also the more or less simultaneous appearance of a new enemy state of Palestine, Israel could find itself engulfed in mass-casualty terrorism, and/or in unconventional war. As to any long-promised security assistance from the United States, President Obama or his successor could offer little more than compassionate American help in burying the dead.
The probability of any genuine Middle East chaos would be enlarged by any future instances of enemy irrationality or madness. If Israel should begin to face an irrational Jihadi adversary that values certain presumed religious expectations more highly than its own physical survival, Israel’s deterrent could, by definition, be immobilized. This could mean a heightened threat of nuclear and/or biological war.